Instructional technology / distance education

Essay on why faculty members should text their students

I have been actively texting my students for almost a year with great success. I’ve wanted to text them since I started my first professional position in higher education, nine years ago, but resistance to texting has been persistent. We are talking, after all, about much more than punching some letters into a phone. If Raymond Carver was writing this story, he’d title it, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Texting.”

Marshall McLuhan famously argued that the medium is the message. He considered our communication channels to be an “extension of ourselves.” In other words, when we talk about texting, we are talking about much more. We are talking about ourselves: our hopes, our fears, our pasts and our futures. In short, the texting conversation that is (or isn’t) taking place on our campuses touches the core of how we walk through this world.

In the past years, I’ve identified two tracks of texting holdouts, or people who are hesitant to add “type of faculty who texts her students” to their respective definition of self:

1. People who don’t text, period. These folks are genuinely -- and legitimately -- concerned about giving up a part of their minds and selves to texting technology.

2. People who text in other realms but who think that texting their students crosses a professional boundary. They believe that email is more professional and that texting will send a (negative) message of informality to their students.

To my anti-texting colleagues: we hear you. Your concerns are valid and important. But in the name of student and faculty success, we have to move forward to pave a new path.

The most recent data shows most teens own smartphones and of those who do, texting is the most popular way to communicate with close friends. (But I’m not their friend, you’re thinking. No, you aren’t. But so what, I ask. If you want to catch a fish, you go where they’re biting, don’t you?) Texting is growing quickly among adults, too. Like it or not, it’s the new normal.

I read with wonder a recent Inside Higher Ed article bemoaning the lack of student use of college email. It reminded me of an empty Blockbuster video store. If we want to communicate with our students, we have to align our mediums with theirs.

What does this all point to? Our students are forming a desire path.

The concept of a desire path comes from design theory. Have you ever been in a park and noticed a dirt path that veers off the paved one? Park visitors have essentially voted with their feet or their bikes. They’ve said they’ve found a better alternative to the designers’ plans. Some designers actually wait for desire paths to form and then pave the organically preferred route. Research on communication channels shows an overwhelming desire path of texting emerging in the park of higher education. The question is, will we pave it?

We should, for a number of reasons. We should:

Use Texting to Address Inequalities. Research has found that African-American students text at even higher rates than white students. If dealing with racial disparities in student success is a concern on your campus, disseminate this data to faculty members and discuss how you can use texting to connect with diverse populations. Survey your own students about texting access and preferences.

Nudge During Gaps. Most of our campuses have become data informed enough to have identified periods of disengagement among our students. Do your faculty members notice class sizes dip during the week after spring break? Consider texting over break to keep students connected. In your online courses, student log-in tends to peak immediately before due dates. Do your online courses hear crickets on Monday? Work with the faculty to develop automated Monday motivation texts to keep students engaged.

Harness the Immediacy and Intimacy of the Texting Medium. Nancy Lublin, CEO of DoSomething, made a compelling case for texting in a recent TED talk. In addition to affirming the high texting rates among urban and minority youth, she points to the 100 percent open rate of texting. Students will read every text that you send. Can you say the same for email? Teach faculty to develop professional and caring texts to send to struggling students. Students might avoid opening emails from professors due to a natural fear of authority figures. Texting is different. The supportive message will be received.

Help Teach Limits. There are a host of concerns related to screen (over)usage both inside and outside higher education. As you pave the texting desire path on your own campus, provide faculty members and students with resources to set boundaries with their electronic devices and to manage their time accordingly. Better yet, go one step farther and introduce conversations on mindfulness and meditation as antidotes to hyperconnectedness.

Remember Faculty Success. We speak so passionately about student success that faculty success is often an afterthought, yet the two are intricately intertwined. Give faculty resources to support their texting plans. Provide quality, paid professional development to both full-time and part-time faculty to teach them how, when and why to text. Communicate to faculty members that texting is often a highly efficient alternative to email that has more benefits than costs.

Texting unquestionably pushes people’s buttons, for better or for worse. Pun intended. We can stubbornly stay on our paved path of email, letters and phone calls, or we can start proactively pushing buttons in the name of student and faculty success.

Author's email: 

Karen Costa is an adjunct faculty member and higher educator. You can follow her on Twitter @KarenRayCosta.

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2016 OLC Innovate

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Modern States Education Alliance shifts focus away from accreditation

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A plan to create an accreditor for online programs adopts a new model: free MOOCs to help students earn placement credit.

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Sat, 10/03/2015 to Sun, 10/04/2015


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Harvard, MIT researchers find MOOC learners using multiple accounts to cheat

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Researchers at Harvard U and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology find a uniquely MOOC way of cheating.

Unizin members reflect on the first year of the consortium

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One year after the launch of Unizin, what has the digital learning consortium accomplished?

It's time to shift discussion of 'online learning' to 'digital strategy' (essay)

It’s taken decades, but educational technology is finally beginning to change the way we think about education itself -- not just the way we deliver it.

Twenty-four years ago, I taught my first writing course in a classroom kitted out with 25 computers. A few years later, I team taught my first online and hybrid courses via threaded discussion boards and asynchronous email-based class discussions, respectively. Of course by that time, the pioneers in the field had already been at the online learning game for years.

In those days, online learning was about experimentation -- seeing what the new technology could do. Soon, though, online learning became a means to an end, in the form of rapid market expansion and tuition growth, aided by 100 percent year-over-year growth rates in the mid-1990s and driven by the early entrants in the market -- for-profit universities and continuing and professional education divisions at nonprofit universities.

A couple decades on now, we see millions of students pursuing degrees wholly online and millions more taking the odd online course for credit, while still millions more are signing up for non-credit-bearing MOOCs. That goes some way to underscoring the fact that online learning is an established and maturing field. But it’s also flattening out. Today the growth has slowed, almost to a standstill, and thus the high-octane revenue growth phase may be behind us.

This may explain, in part, why the field is starting to be talked about in new ways, particularly as new sorts of institutions get involved, as the motivations for deploying an ever-growing number of learning technologies gradually begin to shift, as learning scientists leverage the growing quantities of data captured by these technologies and as the organizational structures online learning operates under begin to take new shape.

If the era of online learning over the past two decades was in large measure about revenue growth, the present moment is about something else.

Evidence of this change can been seen in a subtle shift in how we talk about this work. Where once we spoke consistently about “online learning,” now, more and more often, I hear higher education leaders talking about “digital strategy” -- a shift in terminology that signals, I believe, a significant change in how we are thinking about the utility of learning technologies.

The phrase “online learning,” for example, might be said to be associated with other terms, like growth, tuition streams, content development and professional master’s degrees. By contrast, the phrase “digital strategy” is associated with a more diverse and inclusive set of terms, like pedagogy, market relevance, undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as online and residential learning experiences. If online learning was, more often than not, about money, then digital strategy is about how we think about, define and structure learning.

As Claudia Urrea, a lecturer at MIT’s recently established Office of Digital Learning, put it to me, “It’s no longer just about putting content online but an opportunity to rethink learning.”

Kevin Bell, who serves as executive director for online curriculum development and deployment at Northeastern University, put it somewhat more forcefully: “There needs to be a digital strategy for face-to-face courses, as well.”

Interestingly, both MIT and Northeastern have been busily realigning their organizational structures in the digital realm to assist them in yielding a broader kind of payoff. The Office of Digital Learning at MIT, headed up by Dean Sanjay Sarma, is a relatively new organization into which established initiatives now report -- such as OpenCourseWare, founded more than 15 years ago, and MITx, launched in 2012 and the precursor to MIT’s collaboration with Harvard, called edX.

Last fall, Northeastern brought on Chris Mallet from Western Governors University to serve in a new role as vice president of online programs, and while the job title underscores the familiar and still persistent use of “online” as a term of art, the new role was conceived as a way of integrating and expanding a diverse set of teaching and technology-related initiatives. Other institutions are similarly reorganizing, adding new layers of management and governance to oversee and harmonize their increasingly diverse digital holdings.

In 2014, James DeVaney joined the University of Michigan as its associate vice provost for digital education and innovation, with the explicit aim, he told me, of making his office’s services “obsolete -- in a good way -- so that academic units are thinking about the innovative use of technology in all their learning environments.” Within a few years, DeVaney added, “I would like to see the word ‘digital’ removed from our unit name.”

One way to account for this shift in thinking is the growing awareness of the potential for educational technologies to enhance teaching and learning broadly and to strengthen the value that colleges and universities are delivering at their very core.

“I see the shift not as one from online to digital,” said Eddie Maloney, the executive director of the center for new designs in learning and scholarship at Georgetown University, “but as a shift from a content-driven or faculty-driven curriculum to an intentional design and assessed curriculum. It’s really about a growing focus on learning design.”

Indeed, where the online era was characterized by efforts to make technology-enabled courses just as good a classroom courses, digital strategy and learning design are about making education better -- regardless of the medium.

Of course, this isn’t to say that there aren’t still institutions out there looking to grow revenue by delivering programs online. And even institutions like Harvard are seeking to generate income from initiatives like HBX, an initiative at Harvard Business School, with its online courses in business fundamentals targeting alumni, corporate and other audiences. Likewise, of course, there are certainly countervailing examples to the structural integration underway at places like MIT, Northeastern and Michigan. Southern New Hampshire University and Champlain College, to name just two examples, have intentionally set out to create organizational separation between their on-campus and online learning activities, and with strong enrollment growth to show for their efforts.

For others, though, the ambitions are different. According to Josh Kim, director of digital learning initiatives at Dartmouth College, and author of Inside Higher Ed’s “Technology and Learning” blog, “Places that really want to protect their brand -- like Brown, Yale, Georgetown, Dartmouth -- are experimenting with low-residency online programs in professional schools and they are having real success, which is driving some rethinking about what we need to be doing to improve our core product. At Dartmouth, it’s a quality play. We want to bring new techniques into residential teaching but also create sustainable programs.”

To the extent that this shift in emphasis from online learning to digital strategy can produce sustainable programs of enhanced quality, we can undoubtedly expect to see more institutions pursuing the path of learning design informed by digital experimentation.

While it may yet be too early to say for sure whether this shift will be long lasting, if it is, we should expect to see evidence of it in some very prominent places. As DeVaney put it, “I think we’ll know if this shift is real when we see more institutions differentiating around this. Hopefully we’ll see mission statements that look different, too.”

Kathleen Ives, chief executive officer of the Online Learning Consortium, agrees, noting, “Digital is becoming mainstream. But for an institution to succeed it has to be part of their vision and mission and has to permeate across their organization.”

Bell at Northeastern argues that truly effective digital strategy will have to go a step farther even than connecting diverse institutional activities. “Digital leadership should not just be about harmonizing initiatives,” he said. “It should also be about harmonizing our messaging and conveying our unique philosophy to the communities we serve -- and at Northeastern, the emphasis is on online experiential learning.”

In other words, the shift to digital strategy will only be significant if it enables institutions to not only think and teach differently, but also to talk more effectively about who they are and what makes them different at the very core.

Peter Stokes is a managing director in the higher education practice at Huron Consulting Group.

Davidson College launches Advanced Placement test preparation modules

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Davidson College releases blended learning modules on edX to help high school students and teachers tackle the trickiest questions on Advanced Placement tests.


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